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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cartoon Cars

Car toons from around the world
One of the most pervasive elements in American life today is the automobile. I dare say no other technical or mechanical development in recent history can match its importance in having changed the way we live--not the computer, not the airplane, TV, the telephone, or even the cell phone. Of course, like all these, the automobile was an end product amalgamation of several other important inventions coming of age during the 20th-century. The only other possible claim to such fame might be Edison's electric light and the complex power grid which powers it. Any major social revolution is prime meat for the cartoonist--also for other artists and those like myself who write about them. In the past I've dealt with this relationship in "The Automobile in Art," "Car Art" (full-size working sculptures) and "Does Your Car Smile at You?" As the final item in this list would suggest, at least in appearance, if not in fact, cars tend to have personalities. This one presence is the key to cartooning of any kind, not least of all the automobile.

It's a far cry from a Model-T, but Ford's 1936 "Woody"
certainly had personality.
As the automobile began to move toward the center of American life in the early decades of the 20th-century, virtually every owner of a Model-T Ford came to recognize their car's "personality." Often they even named their cars much as they had their horses--the "Tin Lizzy," for instance. Cartoonists picked up on this. In essence, the cartoon car might be said to date all the way back to the stone age and Fred Flintstone's vintage two-seater. Actually, Hanna-Barbera created a whole fleet of Neolithic vehicles for their 1960s TV series. From all indication, Fred seems to have had two cars, his little roadster and a big, family SUV for vacation road trips.

Hanna-Barbera probably set automotive design back a million years.
Quite apart from Hanna-Barbera, it took the Disney Studios back in 2006 with their feature-length cartoon Cars to probe in any great depth the cartoon potential of the automobile. Just as I suggested in writing about automobile "smiles," not only does the grillwork of a car suggest a personality, it can also be quite persuasive in expressing emotions, and even "talking." Certainly Disney has gotten great "mileage" from this cartoon franchise, coming out with a TV show Cars Toon in 2008, Cars 2 in 2011, and the upcoming Cars 3 in June of 2017.

Animated Autos
Some concepts cars are best left conceptual.
Most cartoon cars are, in fact, caricatures of readily ident-ifiable models whether anti-ques, classics, or even fut-uristic concept cars (right). The caricature usually does not have a storyline as in the Disney features. Even the Flintstones' car was periphe-ral to the weekly cartoon plot. Therefore like all caricatures, such cartoon cars must stand on their own, recognizable as to make, year, and model, along with the added burden of be-ing in some way "funny" through exaggeration. The Pontiac Firebirds (below) are the perfect example of the CARicature. The Firebird artist has converted the Mustang wannabes first to "muscle" cars and from there into "hotrods," an amusing pretension in both cases (I know, I used to own one).

The Pontiac Firebird was neither a bird, nor very fiery.
For a classic, inside look at a real hotrod, we must defer to Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Stevan Dohanos, and his 1950's cover in which he explores the real meaning of the word. The cover itself is a glorified cartoon. The humor inherent in the dilapidate jalopy is matched quite appropriately by the enthusiasm of the teenagers pouring over (and under) the machine. In fact, one doesn't have to search too deep to come up with a likely storyline. The wealth of details Dohanos has collected provides all the plot elements we need. Moreover, he predates both Hanna-Barbera and Disney's Cars. Best of all, the car doesn't have all the best lines.

One has to wonder if Dohanos' teenaged boys would be working so diligently on their group undertaking were it not for the watchful, admiring eyes of the girls.
Some cartoon cars take on a life of their own.


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